Written evidence submitted by Alex Montegriffo, Community Organiser and Campaigns Manager, Devizes and District Foodbank (WIN0007)

Context on Devizes and District Foodbank:

Devizes and District Foodbank is part of a Trussell Trust scheme that aims to identify and implement local campaigns to reduce the need for food banks locally, so that one day everyone in the UK can afford the essentials, and no-one is in the position of having to use a food bank. Campaigns are run and coordinated by the community, including people with lived experience of financial hardship, with the support and expertise of the Community Organiser.

A local issue identified in Devizes and wider Wiltshire is the lack of energy support for people living full-time on houseboats who do not have a permanent residential mooring (e.g. continuous cruisers or people moored at non-residential addresses such as recreational marinas). There has been a major increase in boaters in this position being referred to Devizes and District Foodbank through a local charity because they do not have the income to afford food and other essential costs.

Liveaboard boaters without a permanent residential mooring have seen a major increase in fuel prices, license fees, and mooring fees (where applicable), but despite this have not been included in support for energy bills, including the Energy Bills Support Scheme Alternative Funding (EBSS-AF) and Alternative Fuels Payment Alternative Funding (AFP-AF). This totals £600 worth of support.

Although a scheme distributing £600 vouchers was announced for continuous cruisers on 17th August 2023, other boaters who missed out on the EBSS-AF and AFP-AF have not had a new scheme put in place for the coming winter. This is despite lobbying groups such as the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) and National Association of Boat Owners (NABO) campaigning for all boaters to be included in energy bill support, and offering to work on solutions with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (ESNZ). Boaters moored at a marina close to Devizes met with their MP, Danny Kruger, in June 2023 to discuss this issue, and he has written to the Minister at the Department for ESNZ and is also submitting evidence to this committee.

Although the Community Organising team at Devizes and District Foodbank are concerned with other issues related to energy support, such as the ability of energy companies to forcefully fit prepayment meters if debt occurs, with a subsequent rise in bills, this evidence will focus on the lack of support for boaters, using the prompt “What more could have been done to prevent price shocks being passed to consumer bills?”.

Body of evidence:

People living on houseboats full-time have faced rapidly rising costs in the last few years, with petrol and diesel prices rising by almost 50%, and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) prices by around 40%, since 2022. Canal and River Trust (CRT) license fees have also risen by 17% since April 2022. At Caen Hill Marina in Devizes, boaters have seen a rise in electricity from 19p to 43p per kWh, a bag of coal increasing from £9 to £16 since 2022, and a bag of wood rising from £5 to up to £30. They have also experienced a 12% rise in mooring fees at the marina.

One boater at the marina reported spending £100 a week to heat and live on their narrowbeam boat in the winter of 2022, demonstrating that price shocks have particularly affected boaters, where buying fuel from fuel boats might not fall under the Government’s Energy Price Guarantee. Many boaters at Caen Hill Marina reported that they were having to use savings to afford energy for their boat to cook, heat and travel. Travel is particularly important for continuous cruisers who have to follow rules in order to keep their status as a continuous cruiser and avoid paying for a home mooring, including not being in one place for more than 14 days. Several people struggling with energy bills at Caen Hill Marina also have medical conditions, and at least two people out of the 30 or so spoken to had diabetes and were unable to afford a suitable diet due to rising costs.

Energy bill support for boaters is invaluable because they are more likely to be on a low income, with around 20% earning under £20,000 a year, rising to 48% for continuous cruisers.

The impact of the lack of energy bill support for boaters is demonstrated below, with amalgamated quotes from boaters at Caen Hill Marina (permission was given to share quotes):

I’m on a state pension, and prices have gone up, but there’s no change in my pension. I’ve applied for Pension Credit, but I fall just short of the eligibility, so I’ve been told I’d get nothing. Sometimes I think, I put all that work in, and what am I getting? My pension just about covers costs, but I have nothing left over. I could have done with the £600 last winter, which was one of the hardest.

Lots of people have left the marina because they couldn’t afford to pay rising costs. You can get support from [a local charity] but it’s hard to ask for help. There’s still a stigma, and it’s a small community. Itd be best for fuel credit to be given discretely. I don’t want anybody’s pity.

I chose to live on a houseboat because I couldn’t afford to rent or buy a house, and there were no council houses available. I was in the Armed Forces. It used to be cheaper to live on a boat, but not so much anymore. It’s bad for your health not to be able to heat or cook on your boat, but people are running out of money for electricity or fuel.

I’m having to use my savings just to live, but savings should be for an emergency, not for food and heating. My savings will eventually disappear.

A lot of the people here are key workers. They went to work during the pandemic, and how’s the government repaying them now?

At the moment, I’m having to use the food bank. My Universal Credit has been cut by deductions, I have a Boat Safety Certificate due, and I haven’t had the Cost of Living Payments even though I’m on Universal Credit. I’m getting no help at all. I can’t even get help with steps for my boat for better access, as the council ‘don’t help boaters’.

Solutions:

The NBTA, who have been lobbying on the inclusion of all boaters in the EBSS (initially for households connected to mains energy) since it was announced in April 2022, are calling for the Department of ESNZ to re-engage in conversation with boater rights groups and licensing bodies such as the CRT, Broads Authority etc to come up with a new scheme for all boaters for the coming winter. The EBSS was promised to ‘all households’ in the UK, so boaters are frustrated that they have not received equal support to protect them from rising costs.

The Department for ESNZ discusses fraud in relation to allowing boaters without a permanent residential mooring access to the £600 package of support, despite the £400 EBSS being paid to second-home owners without any checks in place. One potential solution is allowing local authorities to contact boaters in their area, identified say through receipts for mooring fees or fuel, to check that they are in the area and potentially to distribute the £600. There is precedent for local authorities distributing funds from the Government, in the form of the Household Support Fund to households in financial need, and this should not be too onerous as there are only an estimated 30,000 people living on houseboats in the whole of the UK.

This is just one potential solution as almost every boater without a permanent residential mooring will have a ‘care of’ address on their documents, usually a friend or relative’s house, or another such as a Poste Restante address. Other solutions were discussed with the Department for ESNZ but not taken forward.

A key action to prevent price shocks being passed to consumer bills, especially vulnerable groups such as those part of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community, should be to engage with people living on houseboats, alongside licensing authorities (not just the CRT) to ensure all boaters, especially the most vulnerable, receive energy bill support over the coming winter.

August 2023